During Guido’s first childhood sequence in the big farmhouse, his female cousin reminds him of a magic spell, Asa nisi masa, which she tells him has the ability to make the eyes in a portrait point to a secret treasure. The cryptic phrase makes such an impression on Guido that nearly forty years later it is psychically available to a pair of magicians who read Asa nisi masa successfully from Guido’s mind. Fellini ostensibly uses the phrase to establish a connection between Guido’s past and present, yet it has more significance than a mere bridge between scenes. Asa nisi masa is actually only one word, encoded in a children’s play language similar to pig Latin. When the second syllable of each word is removed, what is left is the word “Anima.” Fellini, who was interested in the work of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, would have known that Jung used the word anima to describe the personification of repressed female characteristics in the male (animus describes the personification of repressed male characteristics in the female). Asa nisi masa, then, can be interpreted as a reference to Guido’s confusion about women.
In the magnificent harem scene, Guido has the ability to control his many women with a few fierce cracks of his whip, yet in reality he is not so powerful. The harem fantasy itself, in fact, is inspired by a humiliating moment during which Rossella and Luisa express their disgust of Guido’s affair with Carla. Though Guido enjoys creating the harem fantasy and adores sleeping with Carla, his voracious sexual appetite is a serious problem for him, making his relationship with his wife and his religious impulses painfully tenuous. It may be natural for a man to have some attraction to any woman he meets, but Guido is an extreme case because he wants—even expects—to have them all. This attitude is parallel to Guido’s creative demeanor. Just as he doesn’t want to commit uniquely to Luisa, he cannot choose a single theme for his film. This irresolution was also a problem for Fellini himself, who made 8½ describe a director’s indecision because he himself couldn’t commit to a single, more coherent theme. In fact, the original title for 8½ was La Bella Confusione (The Beautiful Confusion).
Fellini’s insertion of the encoded “anima” suggests that Guido’s inability to commit, especially to women, is due to the inaccessibility of the part of his mind that comprehends relationships. Jung wrote that the anima is responsible for the connection with the “spring,” or source of life, and the “eros,” or principle of relationship, both of which are housed in the unconscious. This theory explains why Guido’s doctor prescribes spring water for his “cure” and why Guido has difficulty understanding love. The latter problem is referred to several times in the film. When Guido meets Cesarino’s two nieces, for instance, one of them tells Guido that he can’t make a movie about love, and Guido, upset by the remark, passively agrees. Later in the film, when Guido speaks with Claudia in the street, she teases him that he doesn’t know how to love. Guido responds coolly that he doesn’t believe in that sort of love, but when Claudia persists, his agitation is undeniable. Poor Guido is deeply upset by his difficulty with women. The difficulty may indeed be due to a faulty connection to his anima, but the magician Maurice, who needs the help of his partner, Maya, to read Guido’s mind successfully, suggests otherwise. Guido may think that his problem is psychologically innate, but it is more likely that he needs only a stronger connection with his own partner, Luisa.